Marci Koski was working a desk job with U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, when she decided to return to her first love: cats. Most of her work hours involved performance evaluations, budgeting projects, going to meetings, reading reports and doing a lot of work that she didn’t feel was going to benefit species that need conservation. She knew she wanted to help animals and people, and so she did a lot of soul-searching, before she decided to become a cat behavior consultant. Marci explained, “There is a lot of suffering in this world, including that of animals. My mission is to reduce that suffering, and help both people and animals live happier, more fulfilling lives. I know a lot about the needs of cats, so that’s where I decided to put my focus, effort, and passion.”
ALLISON: Tell me about your cats.
MARCI: Oooohh, are you sure you want to ask that question? I could talk for hours, gushing about my kitties! My husband and I are guardians to four lovely cats. He had three cats when I met him. He had rescued Samantha, who was pregnant at the time. Then Chris ended up keeping two of her kittens, Oliver and Momo. Samantha is super sweet and affectionate, and loves people. The kittens are both fairly shy, but very pretty and sweet as well. They’re still very bonded with Samantha, almost 10 years later! My cat, Abbey, is also almost 10 and she’s a spunky little white and gray kitty who loves to play. I’ve also trained her to do some tricks! All of our cats have distinct personalities and I love them all.
ALLISON: What interests you about cats?
MARCI: I love that cats are still wild at heart. They can be so mysterious, and you have to figure each one out–what they like, what they don’t. Their instincts are still largely intact from their untamed ancestors, so they’re very instinctual. I love that we have these wild animals in our lives, sharing our homes. When you bond with a cat, it’s because you’ve earned that cat’s love and trust. I think that cats are complex creatures who can teach us so much about ourselves by how they respond to us and the environments we give them. Plus, cats are adorable. And majestic. I’ve never met a cat I didn’t fall in love with.
ALLISON: Share a highlight from your work as a biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
MARCI: As a biologist, I worked with a lot of different critters and with plants. When I was in Southern California, I really enjoyed one particular project, working to conserve a critically endangered butterfly, the Laguna Mountain Skipper. I worked with a small group of biologists who performed butterfly surveys during the summers up in the mountains to assess the skipper population and their host plants. I loved all of the wildlife that we got to see up there, including dozens of different butterfly species, rattlesnakes, and even a bobcat or two. Those field days were the best!
ALLISON: What training was involved with becoming a cat behavior consultant?
MARCI: I have a Ph.D. in Fishery and Wildlife Biology, so I learned a lot about animals, evolution, and ecology through my studies and research. But I wanted some cat-specific information, so I decided to go through two feline training and behavior certification programs, both through the Animal Behavior Institute. I took several classes about feline behavior, training, nutrition, and animal brain development and emotions. The program also had a field-hours component, which I fulfilled by volunteering with a couple of animal shelters (and I still work with them). I really learned a lot about general behavior principles getting those certificates, as well as information specifically about cats and their biological, social, and emotional needs. After that, I set up my business, with which I had absolutely no experience! I’ve never really been the entrepreneurial type, so it was a steep learning curve for me. Running a business is so different from providing behavioral advice, for sure. So not only did I have to learn about cat behavior, but running a business as well. Every day is different, which is something I really enjoy!
ALLISON: Share a highlight from your work with animal rescue organizations.
MARCI: I volunteer with a small grass-roots organization called Furry Friends in Vancouver, WA, but I also do some work for a much larger organization, the Humane Society for Southwest Washington. The two organizations are so very different from each other, but both do necessary and amazing work. One of the programs I’m involved with through the Humane Society is their cat socialization program. The Humane Society takes under-socialized cats to live with a select group of inmates at a nearby state prison, and I go up to the prison once a month to teach the inmates about cat behavior and help them socialize the cats they are working with. It’s an INCREDIBLE program! The cats get socialized (overcoming fear or aggressive behaviors) and become adoptable, the inmates develop relationships with the cats that help them learn and grow, and the Humane Society gets to adopt out more animals. It’s truly a win-win-win program that has benefited hundreds of cats and dozens of inmates. I’m definitely honored to be a part of the program!
ALLISON: Describe a typical consulting session.
MARCI: I’m not sure there is a “typical” consulting session, lol! Each client that I work with is different. It depends on the type of consultation that the client purchases: I have introductory consultations which are simply 30-minute phone calls, but I also have full consultation packages that last for 30 days. The full consultation packages include either an in-home visit or video conference so that I can see the cat’s environment and resources. I’ll spend a good deal of time (average of about two hours) talking with my client about the issues that their facing, and develop a behavior plan that is reasonable for the client to work with. I ask a lot of questions and try to get to the root of what’s causing the problem so that the problem is resolved, not just managed. Then, for the rest of the 30 days, I provide email and phone support to make sure that things are moving in the right direction. That’s the general process, which I’ve found works well.
ALLISON: What are the most common behavior issues you’ve encountered?
MARCI: Inter-cat aggression is easily the most common behavior issue. It usually involves cats in a multi-cat family who weren’t properly introduced or who weren’t given enough time to get to know each other before being forced to live in each others’ spaces. And then, of course, there’s house-soiling. House-soiling is often a problem in homes where inter-cat aggression is present, so there are often multiple issues that my clients bring to the table. I really believe in addressing cat behavior issues in a holistic manner–that is, not treating just one thing, but really looking at the cat’s whole life to decrease stress, encourage expression of natural behaviors, build territorial security, and increase the cat’s confidence overall. That leads to happier cats and happier people!
ALLISON: What is a memorable experience?
MARCI: Personally, one of my most memorable experiences was giving my two-weeks’ notice with the Fish and Wildlife Service. It was at that point that I made the commitment to be my own boss and really dedicate myself to my business helping cats and their people. I was giving up a good job with a generous salary, health care, and retirement benefits. It was scary, but so worth it. I’m very lucky to have a supportive husband too!
ALLISON: What have you learned from the less-successful moments?
MARCI: Oh, I’ve learned so many lessons! I’ve learned about people, I’ve learned about cats, I’ve learned about myself. Working with animals can be very difficult, and there will be some that I just can’t help for one reason or another. There may be an underlying physical or medical issue, or there may be an issue with the guardians not following through with the behavior plan properly, or I just might not know the best answer to the problem. I’ve learned that I’m not going to have all the answers all of the time, and that’s okay, but I can always try my best. And that includes seeking advice from other professionals and giving the best resources available to my clients. Making professional contacts has been very helpful in terms of learning new techniques, and also sharing what I have learned through my own experiences. People are great resources, and I’ve learned that those within the cat behavior consulting community generally want to help each other out because it means helping more animals. It can be hard asking for help, but it’s worth it!
ALLISON: What lessons have you learned about working with animals?
MARCI: I’ve learned about compassion and empathy, not just towards cat, but towards their people as well. Cats are simply responding to what they’ve been provided in their environment, and their guardians are responsible for providing the appropriate resources their cats need. This includes not only food, water, and litter boxes, but it includes napping locations, perches, enrichment items and activities, and love–in whatever fashion cats enjoy it. People have strong views about what they can/can’t and will/won’t provide in their homes. People project their own emotions on to their animals, and the animals reflect them back. Animals are incredibly aware, much more than we give them credit for. When I see a cat who is suffering by demonstrating a behavior problem, I see the suffering of an entire family, which makes me want to do everything in my power to improve the situation for everyone. It’s emotional work, and it can be exhausting, but when things work out it is soooooo rewarding.
ALLISON: Give a tip to anyone who might want to become a cat behavior consultant.
MARCI: Please volunteer at an animal shelter. You’ll learn first-hand about the reasons why cats are surrendered to shelters, and the stress that befalls them there. You’ll also see all sorts of different types of cats, how they respond to a stressful environment, and discover ways of reducing their stress. You’ll learn about enrichment, and you’ll be able to provide comfort to cats who need it. You’ll be helping animals find their forever homes, too. My mission is to keep cats in homes and out of shelters. That’s my Big Why for starting Feline Behavior Solutions. I wouldn’t have solidified and given life to my mission without the experience I had volunteering in shelters, and it was totally worth it.